My office is our kitchen table. Ever since I can remember I’ve wanted my private work space, but when you grow up the youngest of five siblings in a three bedroom house, it ain’t goin’ happen. So for now, I share our new bright yellow Formica table with my mom as she gets supper ready.
Like clockwork, as I get in from school, my mom puts a little snack out for me just as I sit down to start my homework. I try really hard not to have homework, but it doesn’t always work out like that. This year I’ve been fightin’ with fractions, so pretty much I find myself regularly glued to the yellow vinyl chairs until it’s time to set the table.
This is my talk time too, as mom always asks me a thousand questions about my day. But, I don’t mind and usually have an earful for her anyway. Today is different tho’ and she doesn’t have to ask, instead I start right out, “Mom?”
“Yes dear, I hear you,” she responds with her back to me, as she scrubs and peels peck of potatoes at the sink.
“Today at school, Jules told me that his dad is mean to him.”
Without turning around, she asks, “Are you referring to Julian Tomas?”
“Yeah, you know, little Jules, “I reiterate exasperated as I’m always havin’ to answer a thousand questions before gettin’ a single answer.
Without missing a single stroke of potato peelin’, she says …but kinda’ asks, “Haven’t you told me before how he often gets into trouble for fighting at school?”
“Yeah, but mom he’s scared at home and says his dad locks him in the closet.”
A stray potato peel flies from her neat pile, the water stops dripping. Her attention is now totally devoid of kitchen duties. She calmly turns around from the big farm sink to face me for the first time since I sat down. Purposefully she wipes her hands on the faded roses that line her apron and pulls out a chair facing it to me. She sits down and brushes back the wisps of graying hair that have fallen from her long simple pony tail. Then tenderly she runs her fingers thru my short straw colored hair and gently strokes the pink freckles sprayed across my face. With her own face as white as our good porcelain, she then carefully grasps my hands and asks, “Jennie. Jennie May, you mean Julian Tomas told you that his father locks him in a closet?”
For a minute I thought we were going to have to pray or something, as she was holding my hands as if they held a little bird. Also, this was my mom’s serious-talk tone that she seldom uses, and let me tell you she hasn’t used my full name since last year when she found out that I paid Jimmy Brown 50 cents for a dead corn snake in a boot box. So, now I’m thinkin’ I probably shouldn’t have said anything, but the seeds had been planted so I cautiously answered, “ Aah, yes, Mamn, that’s what he told me.”
“Did he say what he did to deserve getting locked in the closet?” She pursed her lips like she was holdin’ a secret.
“No mamn, he only told me that he’s gotta’ get in the closet when his dad’s girlfriends come over. He says he gets locked up and he gets scared. Mom, I think that’s downright mean,” I say pleadingly to her. “I told him I was going to tell Ms. Johnson, but he begged me not to tell the teacher. Then he pulled up his shirt and showed me where his dad had punched him. Mom, his back was all black and purple. It looked like the time we went to see ol’ Ms. Harper in the hospital after she fell in the bathtub. Remember how bruised up and purple she got?”
My mom stood up, and with her hands she very intentionally pressed out her apron, but the faded roses stayed crumpled. Her face was very still; ‘cept that I saw her jaw a jumpin. “Until I talk to your father, I don’t want to hear you say another word about this to anyone. Not to Julian, not to your friends, not to your brothers or sisters. Do you understand?”
My head bobbled.
Everyday our little town is the same as the day before, only marked by the change of season, the phase of the moon and by what crops are being planted…or harvested. Most everyone on our mail route was a farmer, except for us, my dad’s a doctor. He reminds us that he’s not a real doctor, just runs the clinic. But our town doesn’t have a real doctor and everyone calls him Dr. Dean, so I figure that makes him a doctor.
Everyone trusts my dad too. I hear him tell my mom over and over again that he should have been a priest for all the confessions he hears at the clinic. And hearing that makes me wonder why folks that go to the clinic also gotta’ go to church. But I know we gotta’ go. There’s no getting’ out of going to church with my dad. He says that’s where we learn to be our brother’s keeper. As a matter of fact, there’s two things that my dad never misses on a Sunday; going to church and watching The Ed Sullivan Show.
For me, I never get tired of watching The Ed Sullivan Show, but I do get tired of being my brother’s keeper. Each Sunday, when I get my allowance, my dad counts out three quarters to my outstretched hand, then ritualistically says, “Now remember, we are our brother’s keeper and one of these quarters goes for your Sunday offering.”
I used to roll my eyes, screeching out, “A whole quarter?” But, like field stone he never budged, so now just I latch my lips.
This Sunday was different though. As I stretched out my hand and dad counted out my three quarters, he said, “Now remember, we’re our brother’s keeper and… I understand that Julian Tomas has confided in you. Will you tell me what Julian has told you?”
It had been days since my mom swore me to silence, so when my dad asked, I was ready to bust a gut and blurted out the entire story again.
I felt bad to be tellin’ on Jules’ dad, but figured my dad could fix it. My dad was very good at fixin’ things; like earaches, headaches, whooping cough, and broken bones. He’d birthed all the babies in the county and one day, Mr. Kline cut his finger clean off with an Exacto knife while building a really cool motorized airplane and my dad fixed that too. My dad could do just about anything, especially practically him being a priest and a doctor, you know. So I figured he could help fix Jules’ dad.
At the end of the next week, Jules came to stay with us. Dad said he wasn’t sure how long it would be for, but that Julian was welcome for as long as he stayed.
At age eight, I’m not sure what I understood about how my parents fit into the scheme of my life. But I trusted that my dad could help Jules. As a matter of fact, I trusted that both my mom and dad could fix anything that went sideways in my life, just like the time when I accidently on purpose borrowed Mr. Campenalli’s box of kittens. My parents always had been and I supposed, always would be there for me. I trusted that my parents would keep me safe, teach me right from wrong, and protect me from harm, but mostly; just love me. Jules didn’t have any of that, but now he did and I finally understood what it meant to be my brother’s keeper.